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Our Region

The South West of England is well-known for its natural beauty and the rich and diverse wildlife that it supports. The region contains a significant proportion of the UK's overall resource of important wildlife sites, habitats and species, for example 62% of the UK's calcareous grassland and 57% of the UK's lowland meadows are found in the South West.

7% of the land area in the region is designated as nationally or internationally important wildlife sites. South West has the longest coastline of any other English region, the marine environment contains half of the regions wildlife.

The South West supports 25 species that are internationally important, over 700 that are of national conservation concern, and 34 species endemic to the UK, 11 of which are only found in the South West.

Threats to the region's rich biodiversity

  • Climate change
  • Land-use changes
  • Environmental pollution
  • Fragmentation and isolation of habitats
  • Damaging fishing methods
  • Introduction of non-native species

Key Sites

Nearly a tenth of the Region's land area is designated as nationally and internationally important wildlife sites, many of which are unique in Europe. The maritime environment is particularly significant in the South West as the ratio of coastline to land area is the highest of any region. At a more local level, areas of wildlife value may be designated as local nature reserves, county wildlife sites or non-statutory nature reserves.

Species

The South West supports some 25 species that are globally important, over 700 species that are of national conservation concern, and 34 species endemic to the UK, 11 of which are only found in the South West, such as lundy cabbage, western ramping fumitory and cornish path moss. 70% of the UK population of greater horseshoe bats occur in the South West and over 25% of the national population of nightjar. For South West England the farmland bird population index shows a 44% decline over 30 years from 1970 to 2000. The shallow reefs off the coast of east Devon and Dorset support high densities of the pink sea fan - a soft coral more typical of Mediterranean waters.

Habitats

The South West supports a high proportion of some of the UKs rarest and most endangered habitats. Many are UK priority habitats . These include:

  • Calcareous grassland - 62% of the UK total - e.g. Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire
  • Lowland heathland - 25% of the UK total - e.g. Dorset heathlands
  • Flower rich pastures - 57% of the UK total - e.g. Culm grasslands, Somerset Levels and Moors
  • Saline lagoons - 37% of the UK total - e.g. The Fleet, Dorset is the largest brackish lagoon in England
  • Offshore reefs - e.g. those off south and east Devon are among the best in the country
  • Ancient Semi - Natural Woodland - 20% of England's total

Many of these, especially soft coastal habitats (e.g. Bridgwater Bay saltmarshes or Slapton Ley saline lagoon), floodplain marshes (e.g. Somerset Levels and Moors), and chalk rivers (e.g. the River Avon) have been identified as particularly vulnerable to climate change (DETR/MAFF 2000).

Terrestrial and Freshwater Habitats

Notable habitats in the South West include upland moorland, lowland wet grassland, chalk rivers, estuaries and the dramatic and varied coastline.

Many habitats are under threat and their areas declining. These include the calcareous grasslands to the east of the Region, fens and marshes on Dartmoor and Exmoor, and neutral and acidic grassland to the west of the Region. Much of this is being replaced by improved grassland (west) and arable or horticultural uses (east) (all information DETR/CEH, 2000).

The South West has a relatively high proportion of woodland habitats compared to the rest of England and our woodlands are extremely diverse. Habitats that are particularly important to the Region are upland oak woodlands, upland ash woodlands, wet woodlands and wood pasture & parkland (RPG Public Examination, 2000).11 woodland areas are candidate SACs, including South Dartmoor Woods (upland ash and upland oak), Avon Gorge Woodlands (lime-ash ravine forest) and Salisbury Plain (lowland juniper scrub) (English Nature, 1999).

The Region supports a number of internationally important rivers, streams and wetlands. Chalk rivers, such as the Rivers Kennet, Avon and Frome, predominate in parts of the Region. Elsewhere, rivers are characterised as clay-bottomed (e.g. Thames and Avon Vales), upland (e.g. on Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor) or limestone/sandstone (e.g. the Wye) (English Nature, 1999).

Wetlands include the open floodplain of the River Avon (Wilts, Dorset, Hants), the wet grasslands of the Somerset Levels and Moors, the Exe Estuary, and less well known areas such as the Culm grasslands of Devon and north Cornwall. These grasslands are important to marsh fritillary butterflies, plants such as whorled caraway and heath spotted orchid.

The continued existence of all these wetlands depends on a delicate blend of poorly drained land, winter flooding and traditional grazing by cattle. Wetlands are not only havens for wildlife. They also play an important role in the water cycle. By retaining water for long periods, they absorb nutrients, ameliorate flooding and assist the percolation of rainwater into aquifers. Increasing the area of wetlands in the Region would be of considerable benefit to our river systems. Maintaining these wetlands is a delicate balance, and will become more complex in the future due to the impacts of climate change.

The South West is the most maritime of all the English regions making up 31% of England's coastline. The area of sea, around 41,000km2, is more than 3 times the land area. There are more than 20 coastal and marine European protected sites in the region and around 8,000 marine species. 90% of rias and 37% of the UK's saline lagoons are found in this region.

There is more information about the South West's unique wildlife and maps showing key designations on the South West Observatory Website.